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Weary but determined, California's small, family-owned farms fight through the pandemic

By Lucas Kwan Peterson, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Business News

Sometimes, the water bill leaps from $2,000 per month into the tens of thousands in the blink of an eye. "Last year, we had one month where the bill was $32,000," Bernard said. "The king couldn't afford this."

Compounding the water woes is the loss of business because of the pandemic. "It hit us really hard," Bernard said. "All of our restaurant sales, hotel sales, small store sales, individual people, boom, it went to zero. We didn't sell a box of lemons for March or April."

The lack of revenue has forced Bernard to do the unthinkable: cull some of his beloved trees.

The trees, like people, have needs, he said, and they don't stop requiring maintenance simply because fewer people are buying fruit. "They're living things," Bernard said. "They respond to care, they respond to lack of care. I look to these trees for inspiration a lot of the time."

Bernard said that he's had about 500 trees removed and that he will likely take out several hundred more. Despite the heartbreak of losing trees, Bernard said he's determined to survive the pandemic, describing his attitude as "defiant."

"Anybody can do this when it's easy," he said. "I choose to do it now just to prove myself that I can."

 

Debby Takikawa and her husband, Shu, farm 66 acres for The Garden Of ..., their business in the Santa Ynez Valley, and also have a small home farm. When the coronavirus hit, the toll was harsh and immediate. "Restaurant wholesale is about two-thirds of our business, and we lost about 75% of that," she said. "It was an unimaginable hit."

To make up for the lost revenue, the Takikawas began producing farm boxes for consumers, but that's required substantially more work and virtually eliminated their profit. For a 24-piece box of exclusively Little Gem lettuce, she said, "we cut and pack in the field; it takes about three minutes to make a box." The farm box, by contrast, "contains one of every single thing that we grow. The profit margin was nonexistent," she said. "But it kept us going."

Filling a farm box means growing nearly twice the variety of products they normally do, Takikawa said. That's about 18 different things instead of the normal 10. "We had to completely change our planting schedule," she said. "Little Asian greens and turnips and things that we could get out of the ground quickly."

The farm also received a $250,000 loan from the government's Paycheck Protection Program, which she used for payroll. The loan will likely be forgiven, per the program's terms, which is something Takikawa is counting on ("If they don't forgive the loan, we'll go belly up. We'll go bankrupt. I can't pay it back."). She emphasized how grateful she is for the money, but she is concerned about the possible financial burden that will come following an IRS announcement that ordinarily deductible business expenses won't be deductible if paid with PPP funds.

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